The Real Holston

The Holston River’s Cherokee Tailwater in northeast Tennessee deserves some recognition from trout anglers!

On The Fly Freshwater

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August 2023

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs

The Holston River downstream of Cherokee Lake is arguably the most overlooked tailwater trout fishery in east Tennessee. That is reasonably understandable since the river system also hosts the tailwater below South Holston Lake and that of the Watauga River downstream of Wilber Lake. Those two flows are noted for some world-class angling, which overshadows the main Holston.  

Angler Rick Rosenberg with a 19-inch catch on the Holston.

Originally called Hogoheegee by the Cherokee Tribe, the river originates with the junction of the Middle, North and South Forks that flow down from the highlands of southwest Virginia. Those three forks join just east of Kingsport, Tennessee to create the main Holston, that in turn joins the French Broad River in Knoxville to form the Tennessee River.  

After being known as the Cherokee River by early French and English explorers, in colonial times it was named the Holston after pioneer Stephen Holstein, who built a cabin and settled in the upper area of the river in 1746.  

As for the trout fishing in the river’s tailwater, the Holston was a Johnny-come-lately. The dam that impounded 30,330-acre Cherokee Lake was completed on January 5, 1941 by the Tennessee Valley Authority. However, the first trout stocking in the tailwater occurred in February of 1999, when 20,000 rainbow trout were released in the river from the dam downstream to the Indian Cave community.    

Today the Holston is stocked regularly with rainbows and brown trout from November to April and is open to fishing under put-and-take statewide trout regulations. Although most of the trout encountered will be in the 10- to 12-inch range, the river does give up some holdovers of 20-inches or more.  

A 20-inch holdover rainbow from the Holston.

In all, there are 21 miles of the river that hold trout on the Holston tailwater. While that is a lot of water since this is a big river, measuring several hundred feet in width, the fact that virtually the entire shoreline is on private property makes access difficult. On the bright side, that fact also limits the amount of fishing pressure these waters receive. The fishery almost never gets crowded on the Holston.  

Due to the lack of shoreline access, much of the action is confined to float fishing. Be aware that with just three public boat ramps along the trout water, those floats can be long ones. Making them even more daunting is the presence of some long, slow sections. Having a motor-powered vessel is a good idea.  

But, even then, you face some obstacles There are four named rapids along the trout area. Beginning with Combs Shoal near the dam, you also encounter Smoky, Lost Creek and Nances Shoals as you move downstream. There also are flats and milder riffles. None of these areas are dangerous, but do present some shallow water.  

Preparing for a float on the Holston tailwater.

One of the  public access points is Cherokee Dam Port, at the end of TVA Dam Road, just east of the State Route 92 bridge downstream of the Cherokee Dam. The Indian Cave access is on the west side of the river at the end of Indian Cave Road and a bit upstream of the Lost Creek Shoals. The final access is at Nances Ferry Boat Launch. This ramp is at the end of Nances Ferry Road on the west side of the river Just upstream is Nances Shoals, as well as Nances Island that splits the river flow. There also are some private access points along the river that may be accessed for a fee.  

Wading anglers can find places to get to water in as well.

Wading anglers do have options on the Holston River tailwater. When floating, there are a number of spots where it is possible to get out and wade. If you are not boating, there are still two spots of interest. The first of these is at the Cherokee Dam Port. By walking downstream from the boat ramp, it is possible to access the Combs Shoals area. The water here is cold due to its proximity to the dam’s water releases thus it offers the best year-round fishing.  

At the end of the trout water at Nances Ferry, where it also is possible to walk upstream to some wadable water in the region around Nances Island and Shoals. However, this area is best for winter and spring fishing, due to the water getting too warm in the summer.  

Of course, water releases from Cherokee Dam influence this tailwater fishery. The normal flow level when no generation is happening is 300 cubic feet per second. In late winter into the spring, these low water periods also feature a pulse schedule. These short releases usually turn off the fishing for about an hour, while noticeably raising the water level in the 2 to 3 miles just below the dam.  

Cherokee Dam is capable of releases of up to 16,000 cfs. However, the minimum water level is the only one that offers dependable fishing. When two or more generators are operating, expect the water to start rising at Indian Cave in 3 to 4 hours, while the surge will reach Nances Ferry around the 5-hour mark.  

The winter months of January and February offer good fishing.

The best time for fishing on the Holston tailwater is January through June, with the peak falling in April to May. Nymphing works throughout the winter months, particularly with midge pupa and larva patterns in sizes No. 18 to 20.  

As the early spring arrives, sulphur-hued craneflies is sizes No. 16 to 18 kick off the dry fly action. By late March, and continuing through to the fall, tan or grey Elk-Hair Caddis patterns in that same size range become important. During May and June, some hatches of Sulphurs in sizes No. 14 to 18 can appear at mid-day, but are more dependable in the evening hours. Presenting Comparaduns or parachute patterns are good options for targeting that fishing.  

If you are looking for some uncrowded tailwater trout action in northeast Tennessee, you probably want to give the Holston River a try.

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